One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn over the years of doing improv is how to perform with someone I didn’t know, or who I perceived to be less inexperienced than myself. It wasn’t that I thought I was the best improviser in the world, it basically came down to a matter of trust.
For all improvisers, trust is perhaps the most important thing when you’re sharing the stage with someone. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t the other person I didn’t trust; ultimately, I didn’t trust myself.
You see, when I first started this amazing improv journey in 2001, I was introduced to the concept of “no mistakes”. I tried to grasp the idea, I thought I understood it, but, in reality, I had no idea what that meant until I had been performing for many years.
Let’s face it, there may be odd choices made, errors of omission, a direction taken because a gift was missed or information not picked up on. Somebody may come into a scene and have the entire thing mapped out in their head and refuse to let go of their ideas. A fellow performer may say “Yes” to your gift, but may not “yes-and” it. We’ve all run into things onstage that frustrate us. We may suddenly find ourselves in a transaction scene or walking through established where-work. These things happen. But, and this is important, they’re not mistakes.
To be a mistake infers that something had previously been planned. We’re doing improv. We’re making it up as we go along, so, in theory anyway, nothing has been planned. Therefore, everything is fair game. When I would play with folks I thought were too inexperienced, I didn’t trust that they would be on the same page as I was, and I would try to fill up the space with words and actions. I did everything in my power to dominate the scene and drive it in the direction I thought it should go. In that very action, I was doing the one thing that would frustrate me about other players. I’m not proud of it, but it happened, and today I know why.
Fast forward several years to the creation of Hit n Run Musical Improv and Makeshake Shakespeare. Suddenly I found myself in two groups that were taking on two very difficult styles; long form improvised storytelling, an improvised play, if you will. At first I thought, “This will be easy!” Telling a single story, from beginning to end, with established characters and blah blah blah. I really thought it would be a piece of cake. Both groups were a mish-mash of people I was VERY familiar with and those I didn’t know at all. To top it all off, we all came to the table with specific strengths and weaknesses.
I learned quickly that blending those various personalities, strengths and weaknesses and individual improv skills, all while learning how to tell a story as a group and mixing in the particular themes and styles unique to the two groups was not only hard, at times it felt impossible.
But here’s the beautiful thing about improv, as we moved forward and grew as a group, I personally grew as an improviser. It was during these often rough and painful early performances that I realized that the problem I had with playing with performers I didn’t know wasn’t with them, it was with me. It hit me the first time I was able to actually sit back and watch a performance of both groups. During the show, I caught several moments when information was missed, where-work was dropped, denials were made. But here’s the thing, the players onstage, caught each of those moments and managed to justify those faux-pas, much to the delight of the audience. The performers were having fun with each other, there was joy and laughter and when something out of the ordinary happened, it wasn’t a moment to panic, it was a moment of opportunity.
Since then, I have worked extremely hard to not see mistakes, but to see opportunities. In order to do this, though, you as a performer have to trust yourself enough to be able to let go of your ideas, to simply go onstage and listen and have fun and see what happens. Trust in yourself that you’ll bring something to the table, and that you’ll support your fellow players regardless of what choices they make.
To illustrate this, I always go back to a moment during MakeShake when we were still just finding our identity as a group. Danny was onstage playing the role of a princess, combing her hair, speaking with her nurse about an upcoming midnight rendezvous with her lover. They clearly had established they were in the bedroom of the princess, somewhere in the castle that looked over the town below. At one point, Danny mentioned her trusty steed and how she “so looked forward to feeling the power of her horse between her thighs.” It was wonderful wordplay meant to insinuate a lustful tryst with her lover later that night. However, behind the curtain, Reid thought that the princess was calling for her horse to take her to her meeting.
Out he walks with a horse in tow, pronouncing, “Here is your steed, madame!” Of course, an awkward buzz went through the audience since there was now a horse in a castle bedroom. Without missing a beat, Danny justified this moment by exclaiming that, as the princess, she always has her horse brought to her bedroom before a meeting so it can get “made up” as well, since the horse must look just as good as the princess when in public.
The audience erupted in laughter and applause. Not because the line was hysterically funny, but the fact that a horse in the bedroom now seemed perfectly normal and the show could go on.
And that’s the magic in what we do. No matter what happens onstage, it’s exactly what is MEANT to happen onstage. We create the world our characters live in. If somethings happens onstage that seems odd or out of place, we simply need to justify it and it’s taken care of.
Anything Can Happen:
Over the years, there have been individuals who I thought of as being “difficult” to play with. Looking back, I was the one who was most likely difficult to play with as well. They may have had a different style than I do, or they may have been more inexperienced than I was, but ultimately, it was up to me, to go out there and have fun and justify and support and realize that no matter what the other person did, it wasn’t a mistake, it was an opportunity.
What we do is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different. But, to me, it’s also the most enjoyable form of performing because there really are no mistakes. We can do anything, be anything we want onstage. Today, when we’re in the middle of an HnR set or nearing the end of a MakeShake set and I have no idea how we as a group are going to wrap up the story, I don’t panic. I look to my fellow performers, all of whom I trust implicitly onstage, and I know that somehow, someway, we’re going to find an ending, together.
And I can only do that now, because I trust myself not to try to force an ending on anyone. We can all let it happen organically as a group, which often leads to events that surprise both us as well as the audience. You can’t plan those moments, they just happen. And they can only happen when there is true trust in yourself, in your fellow performers and in potential opportunities.